One day, my mother joyfully informed me that an aunt in our community had paid me a compliment. Her exact words were: “Your daughter is so spirited and cheerful.” This was perhaps the first time in her forty years that she had heard anyone describe me thus. Her expression resembled that day in junior high when I unexpectedly placed in the top five of my grade on a monthly exam. Of course, after that singular success my grades reverted to their usual middling position, much to her disappointment.
I recalled then what I had said to that same aunt when we met. I first flattered her pretty clothes and enduring youthfulness, before complimenting her youthful outlook, having noticed her flaunting her new attire and anticipating my praise. I had forgotten all about that incident, but recollecting my exaggerated manner and careless tone that day, I felt extremely embarrassed. That version of myself was not the real me.
Only my closest family members truly know that my personality runs counter to lively and cheerful. When relatives make such comments, my mother is quick to describe me as an uncommunicative child. In elementary school, I didn’t even know my own birthday (we still used the lunar calendar, which confused me), only that it fell in winter. Why? Because I never asked my mother. And why didn’t I ask her? Not from indifference, but because I feared any useless reply from her. I wouldn’t have asked my father either. My father is a very quiet man. When he does speak at length, it is because he has been drinking, which alarms me a little, as I don’t believe that is the real him.
In junior high, I biked to school daily. One morning, I suddenly realized the person cycling ahead of me was my favorite English teacher. Our class was the first she had taught since graduating from normal school, and my admiration for her was strictly silent, unlike other students who constantly flocked around her. It was a rare chance encounter. I wanted to say hello, but didn’t dare. That morning I just rode silently behind her.
College was a fresh start, and there were many more introverted and socially awkward people than me. In retrospect, it seems they were afraid of society itself. I became even less visible, and believed I had changed significantly, when in truth I was fading into social invisibility. At the malatang stall in the cafeteria, I always feel awkward specifying which ingredients I do and don’t want. When asked if I want it spicy or mild, I just nod sheepishly, too timid to request extra spice. Once when I went with my roommate, she had already grabbed all the dishes, so boldly asked the server, “Give me some more cilantro!” The woman scooped up a handful and added it to the basket. My roommate persisted, “Give me some more chrysanthemum!” The server stared sharply and spooned in more chrysanthemum. Just when I thought, “That’s plenty,” my roommate continued, “Give me some more mushrooms!” I figured the woman must be angry by now. I quickly looked away, pretending to peruse the menu at the next stall. But instead, the server stated firmly, “I’ll add some more mushrooms for you, and that’s all. No more!” Turns out that approach works too! When it was my turn, I wanted to request extra ingredients, but in the end couldn’t utter a word, not even for extra spice. Our two bowls of malatang came out, and you could easily identify my roommate’s without checking.
After so many years navigating social situations, my skills have indeed improved tremendously. I even worked in customer service early in my career. During those years of interacting with all types of people, I gave the impression of being polite, considerate and reliable. Yet I still harbored a profound fear of socializing. Sometimes I wonder, is that even me talking and laughing so effortlessly? It feels like another self, just as my gregarious father when drinking wasn’t his true self either. I tell my friends I’m actually socially anxious, and they react with disbelief: “No way, you’re socially anxious?” Their indignation mirrors someone fatter insisting I’m fat, or someone older claiming I’m old. So only I know the inner turmoil of invisible social terror.
My approach with many things is to rely on myself whenever possible, never troubling others. As a directionally challenged person, when I have to visit somewhere new, I depend on myself. I would rather wander a bit than ask for help. When I finally locate the destination after crisscrossing about, I feel such happiness and accomplishment in that moment, as if I had just solved a vexing math problem.
It’s like the universe deliberately tests me sometimes. There is a bus I often need to take near the gate of my housing complex. The odd thing about this bus is it doesn’t always stop at my station, instead alternating. If a fellow passenger happens to be going my way, they’ll ask the driver if he’s stopping there before boarding. That’s how I find out indirectly. But I never ask myself. Even if I don’t make it home, it’s just one more stop to walk—about the same time as waiting for the next bus. Once aboard, I tell myself to ask the driver for my stop, but can never find the right moment. Too many people, the bus moves too fast, the driver seems in a bad mood—in short, no perfect opportunity arises for me to ask. I can always find excuses not to. We reach the critical juncture. If I don’t inquire whether the bus turns left or continues straight after the next stop, I will gather my courage and ask. A few times I still lacked the nerve at the decisive moment, so got off preemptively and walked that one station home. When the bus later passes my house, I feel like I’ve missed out tremendously. If it turns the other way, I feel like I’ve gotten away with something. Once, exhausted and unwilling to ask or disembark early, I thought, let the bus take me wherever—maybe it will end up at my doorstep! Then I watched it make a left, and trudged the extra two stops home after disembarking.
Neighbors on my floor always exchange pleasantries when crossing paths. I try to avoid riding the elevator with others. If someone enters ahead of me, I’ll walk slowly, timing it so they’ve started the elevator by the time I enter the building. If a neighbor comes in behind me, I quickly put distance between us, dash to the elevator and hurriedly tap my card to close the doors, like a thriller chase scene. When forced to share an elevator, I just gaze at the ads and berate myself afterwards—how foolish, why not just look at my phone? But in the moment, I feel paralyzed, unable to even reach for my phone. There’s one gregarious aunt who always remarks with concern, “Oh, you’re not wearing enough layers!” I get flustered and hasten to explain, “No really, it’s quite warm, look at the velvet lining of my coat…” As I speak, I flip my sleeves to demonstrate. Sometimes she asks if I’ve eaten, which really stumps me. I want to say no, but it feels somehow inappropriate to confess I haven’t eaten to her… So I hastily reply yes, and the haste makes me seem like I’m lying outrageously.
Once I find a barbershop I like, I won’t readily switch to another. I’m forced to find a replacement only when that shop moves too far away or goes out of business. Before my first visit elsewhere, I repeatedly tell myself—no perms, no styling products, no card, no extra services, no shampoo—not just because I don’t want those things, but also to avoid the social burden.
I’ve contemplated making some effort to change myself. There’s a psychotherapy technique for overcoming social anxiety called “shame attacking” – deliberately practicing the very things you fear most until you become desensitized and achieve a freedom from caring what others think. Like going to a store, buying an item, then returning it, not because you want to return it, but to face the fear and do it anyway. Just thinking about it scares me, so forget it—I’d rather accept myself than force change.
Now after all these years navigating social anxiety, I generally don’t stay upset too long, and can even find amusement in recalling my awkward moments. Just the other day, I encountered a friendly female neighbor downstairs. I entered the elevator and she exited. Being around the same age, we have a certain familiarity in the building. She smiled at me amiably, and my mind suddenly blanked. After nodding woodenly, I blurted out, “What are you up to?” She froze two seconds before stammering she was headed to such-and-such supermarket… I was so annoyed with myself—what was I thinking, why would I ask that? Isn’t that inflicting social anxiety on others? I badly wanted to chase her out and explain, but restrained the urge. Doing so would have only compounded my regret afterwards. I sometimes feel so foolish, but then correct myself—I merely did one foolish thing. The book “Unconditional Self-Acceptance” says you can judge a single action without deciding what kind of person you are because of one success or failure. You are defined not by any one behavior, but the sum of thousands, encompassing good, bad and irrelevant acts.
Social fear is also becoming less and less relevant to me. In the first half of my life, I didn’t miss anything important. Maybe I’ll miss something, but if I don’t work hard for something, I don’t think it’s what I need.
If someone who seems to be socially disabled says that he is actually socially anxious, I will tell him or her that I know how it feels.